MAYNARD V. HILL, 125 U. S. 190 (1888)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Maynard v. Hill, 125 U.S. 190 (1888)

Maynard v. Hill

No. 194

Argued February 16-17, 1888

Decided March 19, 1888

125 U.S. 190


A territorial statute of Oregon, passed in 1852, dissolving the bonds of matrimony between husband and wife, the husband being at the time a resident of the territory, was an exercise of "the legislative power of the territory upon a rightful subject of legislation," according to the prevailing judicial opinion of the country and the understanding of the legal profession at the time when the act of Congress establishing the territorial government was passed, August 14, 1848, 9 Stat. 323. The general practice in this country of legislative bodies to grant divorces stated.

The granting of divorces being within the competency of the legislature of the territory, its motives in passing the act in question cannot be inquired into. Having jurisdiction to legislate upon the status of the husband,

Page 125 U. S. 191

he being a resident of the territory at the time, the validity of the act is not affected by the fact that it was passed upon his application, without notice to or knowledge by his wife, who, with their children, had been left by him two years before in Ohio under promise that he would return or send for them within two years.

Marriage is something more than a mere contract, though founded upon the agreement of the parties. When once formed, a relation is created between the parties which they cannot change, and the rights and obligations of which depend not upon their agreement, but upon the law, statutory or common. It is an institution of society, regulated and controlled by public authority. Legislation, therefore, affecting this institution and annulling the relation between the parties is not within the prohibition of the Constitution of the United States against the impairment of contracts by state legislation.

Nor is such legislation prohibited by the last clause of Article 2 of the Ordinance of the Northwest territory, declaring that

"No law ought ever to be made or have force in said territory that shall in any manner whatever interfere with or affect private contracts or engagements bona fide and without fraud, previously formed,"

which clause was, by the organic act of Oregon, enacted and made applicable to the inhabitants of that territory.

Under the Oregon Donation Act, 9 Stat. 496, c. 76, the statutory grant took effect as a complete grant only on the termination of the four years' term of residence and cultivation, and the wife of a resident settling under the act as a married man, who was divorced from him after the commencement of his settlement, but before its completion, took no interest under the act in the title subsequently acquired by him. He had, previous to that time, no vested interest in the land, only a possessory right -- a right to remain on the land so as to enable him to comply with the conditions upon which the title was to pass to him.

The case, as stated by the Court, was as follows:

This is a suit in equity to charge the defendants, as trustees of certain lands in King County, Washington Territory, and compel a conveyance thereof to the plaintiffs. The lands are described as lots 9, 10, 13, and 14, of section 4, and lots 6, 7, 8, and 9, of section 5, in township 24 north, range 4 east, Willamette meridian. The case comes here on appeal from a judgment of the supreme court of the territory sustaining the defendants' demurrer and dismissing the complaint. The material facts as disclosed by the complaint are briefly these:

In 1828, David S. Maynard and Lydia A. Maynard intermarried in the State of Vermont, and lived there together

Page 125 U. S. 192

as husband and wife until 1850, when they removed to Ohio. The plaintiffs, Henry C. Maynard and Frances J. Patterson, are their children and the only issue of the marriage. David S. Maynard died intestate in the year 1873, and Lydia A. Maynard in the year 1879. In 1850, the husband left his family in Ohio and started overland for California, under a promise to his wife that he would either return or send for her and the children within two years, and that the meantime he would send her the means of support. He left her without such means, and never afterwards contributed anything for her support or that of the children. On the 16th of September following, he took up his residence in the territory of Oregon, in that part which is now Washington Territory, and continued ever afterwards to reside there. On the 3d of April, 1852, he settled upon and claimed, as a married man, a tract of land of 640 acres, described in the bill, under the Act of Congress of September 27, 1850, "creating the office of surveyor general of public lands in Oregon, and to provide for the survey, and to make donations to settlers of the said public lands," and resided thereon until his death. On the 22d day of December, 1852, an act was passed by the legislative assembly of the territory purporting to dissolve the bonds of matrimony between him and his wife. The act is in these words:

"An act to provide for the dissolution of the bonds of matrimony heretofore existing between D. S. Maynard and Lydia A. Maynard, his wife."

"SEC. 1. Be it enacted by the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Oregon that the bonds of matrimony heretofore existing between D. S. Maynard and Lydia A. Maynard be, and the same are hereby, dissolved."

"Passed the House of Representatives, December 22, 1852."


"Speaker of the House of Representatives"

"Passed the council, December 22, 1852"


"President Council"

Page 125 U. S. 193

The complaint alleges that no cause existed at any time for this divorce; that no notice was given to the wife of any application by the husband for a divorce, or of the introduction or pendency of the bill for that act in the legislative assembly; that she had no knowledge of the passage of the act until July, 1853; that at the time she was not within the limits or an inhabitant of Oregon; that she never became a resident of either the Territory or State of Oregon, and that she never in any manner acquiesced in or consented to the act, and the plaintiffs insisted that the legislative assembly had no authority to pass the act; that the same is absolutely void, and that the parties were never lawfully divorced.

On or about the 15th of January, 1853, the husband, thus divorced, intermarried with one Catherine T. Brashears, and thereafter they lived together as husband and wife until his death. On the 7th of November, 1853, he filed with the Surveyor General of Oregon the certificate required under the donation Act of September 27, 1850, as amended by the act of the 14th of February, 1853, accompanied with an affidavit of his residence in Oregon from the 16th of September, 1850, and on the land claimed from April 3, 1852, and that he was married to Lydia A. Maynard until the 24th of December, 1852, having been married to her in Vermont in August, 1828. The notification was also accompanied with corroborative affidavits of two other parties that he had, within their knowledge, resided upon and cultivated the land from the 3d of April, 1852.

On the 30th of April, 1856, he made proof before the register and receiver of the land office of the territory of his residence upon and cultivation of his claim for four years, from April 3, 1852, to and including April 3, 1856. Those officers accordingly, in May following, issued to him, and to Catherine T. Maynard, his second wife, a certificate for the donation claim, apportioning the west half to him and the east half to her. The certificate was afterwards annulled by the Commissioner of the General Land Office on the ground that as it then appeared, and was supposed to be the fact,

Page 125 U. S. 194

Lydia A. Maynard, the first wife, was dead, and that her heirs were therefore entitled to half of the claim.

On a subsequent hearing before the register and receiver, the first wife appeared, and they awarded the east half of the claim to her and the west half to the husband. From this decision an appeal was taken to the Commissioner of the General Land Office, and from the decision of that officer to the Secretary of the Interior. The Commissioner affirmed the decision of the register and receiver so far as it awarded the west half to the husband, but reversed the decision so far as it awarded the east half to the first wife, holding that neither wife was entitled to that half. He accordingly directed the certificate as to the east half to be cancelled. The Secretary affirmed the decision of the Commissioner, holding that the husband had fully complied with all the requirements of the law relating to settlement and cultivation, and was therefore entitled to the west half awarded to him, for which a patent was accordingly issued. But the Secretary also held that at the time of the alleged divorce, the husband possessed only an inchoate interest in the lands, and whether it should ever become a vested interest depended upon his future compliance with the conditions prescribed by the statute; that his first wife accordingly possessed no vested interest in the property. He also held that the second wife was not entitled to any portion of the claim, because she was not his wife on the first day of December, 1850, or within one year from that date, which was necessary, to entitle her to one-half of the claim under the statute, and the plaintiffs insist that the decision of the Commissioner and Secretary in this particular is erroneous and founded upon a misapprehension of the law.

Subsequently the east half of the claim was treated as public land, and was surveyed and platted as such under the direction of the Commissioner of the General Land Office. The defendants Hill and Lewis, with full knowledge, as the bill alleges, of the rights of the first wife, located certain land scrip known as Porterfield land scrip, upon certain portions of the land, and patents of the United States were issued to

Page 125 U. S. 195

them accordingly, and they are applicants for the remaining portion. The complaint alleges that the other defendant, Flagg, claims some interest in the property, but the extent and nature thereof are not stated.

Upon these facts, the plaintiffs claim that they are the equitable owners of the lands patented to the defendants Hill and Lewis, and that the defendants are equitably trustees of the legal title for them. They therefore pray that the defendants may be adjudged to be such trustees and directed to convey the lands to them by a good and sufficient deed, and for such other and further relief in the premises as to the court shall seem meet and equitable.

To this complaint the defendants demurred on the ground that it did not state facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action. The court sustained the demurrer and gave judgment thereon in favor of the defendants. On appeal, the supreme court of the territory came to the same conclusion -- that the complaint did not state a sufficient cause of action, that no grounds for relief in equity appeared upon it, and that the defendants' demurrer should be sustained. Judgment was accordingly entered that the complaint be dismissed. To review this judgment the case is brought to this Court.

Page 125 U. S. 203

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